It’s no secret that football in America is brutal, aggressive, and promotes hyper-masculinity. It’s seen in the vigorous tackles, in the die-hard fans, and in the laws that require cheerleaders to wear crop tops and skin-tight shorts to games. And so, it unfortunately does not come as a surprise that the other side of football, refereeing, is just as male dominated and sexist as the game itself. However, about one month ago, Sarah Thomas became the first female on-field official in a National Football League (NFL) playoff game. Thomas, who was already the first woman to ever officiate a college football game and be hired full-time by the NFL, made history for the third time in her career on January 13, 2019 by refereeing the Los Angeles Chargers and the New England Patriots game. Simply put, Thomas is a trailblazer for women in sports, narrowing the gender inequality gap for a less publicized arena: officiating.
It was only in 1997 that the first female referee, Violet Palmer, was hired by the National Basketball Association (NBA), and it was nine whole years until she became the first woman to officiate an NBA playoff game in 2006. Moreover, up until 2016, male and female Fédération Internationale Football Association (FIFA) referees were still trained separately, and in 2011, not a single female referee was employed by Major League Soccer (MLS).
The question is: why is it that female referees don’t account for a larger number? The answer is sexism. Just like how women used to not be able to, and in some countries still aren’t allowed to, play sports, the same goes for officiating them. Professional female athletes are paid a fraction of the pay their male counterparts earn, receive little media attention in comparison to men’s sports, are policed about their bodies, and periodically receive sexist remarks from the media.
Unfortunately, female referees seem to experience the same. Bibiana Steinhaus, a German soccer referee deemed the best female referee in the world, has had male players touch her breasts, untie her shoelaces as a “prank,” and had sexist remarks been directed towards her in the middle of games. In 2015 during a match in Germany, Steinhaus gave a midfielder a second yellow card. In response, the player told Steinhaus, “Women have no place in men’s football.”
While Steinhaus reported this remark, it goes unsaid that this isn’t the first time female referees have received backlash for simply doing their job.
This is why Sarah Thomas’ accomplishment is such a milestone for women. Having broken the glass ceiling in football, Thomas is now a role model for every girl aspiring to pursue a referee position, a career as a professional athlete, and any other profession or aspiration.